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Engine Chamber Pressure Problem Scrubs SpaceX Launch, Next Try Probably May 22

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-May-2012 (Updated: 19-May-2012 06:18 PM)

The launch of SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft on the Falcon 9 rocket was scrubbed at the very last moment today because of a high engine chamber pressure reading in engine 5.  SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell confirmed that preliminary diagnosis at a 6:30 am Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) post-scrub press briefing today.

A launch abort is always better than a launch failure, and not particularly uncommon especially with new rockets.   Aborting right at the moment of launch is unusual and made this one more of a nail-biter than most.  The launch was aborted at T-0.5 seconds -- half a second before liftoff.   Shotwell said all nine engines ignited properly, but engine 5 immediately began "trending high" and exceeded the abort limit.

The vehicle is being safed and Shotwell said that technicians would be able to go out to the pad about noon today to determine what went wrong.   Until more is known, a new launch date cannot be set, but the next opportunity is May 22 at 3:44 am EDT.   The company and NASA are also looking at the next day, May 23, at 3:22 am EDT, but they do not know if the range is available that day. 

Shotwell said that if the engine needs to be replaced, it wil take only a "couple of days."   SpaceX has another Falcon 9 already at Cape Canaveral and the engines could be swapped expeditiously even though that would mean bringing the rocket back to the hangar.   She said they could roll back to the hangar and return to the pad by May 22. 

The launch abort was not a failure, she stressed.  "We aborted with purpose.  It would have been a failure if we lifted off with an engine trending" in the wrong direction.

The launch is a demonstration flight that is part of NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to facilitate the emergence of commercial companies that can launch cargo to the International Space Station (ISS).  NASA is providing some, but not all, of the funding to SpaceX and to Orbital Sciences Corp. to develop cargo space transportation systems and will buy services from them once they are operational.   Orbital has not yet launched its Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft.

SpaceX's first COTS test flight in December 2010 was successful, launching the Dragon spacecraft into orbit and recovering it at sea after two orbits of the Earth.   Two more SpaceX test flights were planned, but SpaceX convinced NASA to combine them into this one flight. The objectives of this flight includes berthing at the International Space Station (ISS) to deliver supplies to the ISS crew.

SpaceX Aborts Launch of Dragon Spacecraft At Last Moment - update 2

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-May-2012 (Updated: 19-May-2012 05:42 AM)

UPDATE 2:  Post-scrub launch briefing will be at 6:30 am EDT.  Watch on NASA TV.  Follow us on Twitter @spcplcyonline.

UPDATED with identification of problem and next launch opportunity

The launch of SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft aboard a Falcon 9 rocket at 4:55 am Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) this morning was aborted at the last moment. 

Countdown was proceeding on schedule and at T-0 everyone was expecting the vehicle to lift off.  But it did not. 

SpaceX said the problem was a high chamber pressure reading in engine 5.  The computer automatically shut down the launch.

The nominal scrub turnaround is three days and the next launch opportunity will be Tuesday morning at 3:44 am EDT.


SpaceX on Track for 4:55 am EDT Launch Tomorrow

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-May-2012 (Updated: 18-May-2012 04:58 PM)

SpaceX's launch of the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft is "go" for launch at 4:55 am Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) tomorrow from Cape Canaveral, FL.  NASA reports there is a 70 percent chance that the weather will be acceptable at launch time.

SpaceX will provide coverage beginning at 4:15 am.   NASA's coverage starts earlier, at 3:30 am.    (Follow us on Twitter @spcplcyonline.)

A lot is riding on the success of this mission, though NASA and SpaceX officials have tried to dampen expectations, reminding everyone that this is a test flight and tests sometimes go awry.  The flight is part of NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to facilitate the emergence of a "commercial cargo" capability where companies develop systems to take cargo to the ISS on a commercial basis rather than NASA developing the systems itself.  NASA is providing some, but not all, of the funding for SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. to develop commercial cargo systems and will buy services from them.  With the termination of the space shuttle program last year, NASA does not have its own ability to send cargo (or crews) to the ISS anymore.   Cargo can be sent only on Russian, European or Japanese spacecraft.   Only Russia can launch crews to the ISS.

Tomorrow's launch is the second COTS test flight for SpaceX.  The first, in December 2010, successfully lofted a Dragon spacecraft into orbit and it safely reentered, landing in the ocean.  SpaceX planned three demonstration flights, but convinced NASA to combine the second and third, so if this mission achieves all of its objectives, SpaceX could begin offering services to NASA soon.  Orbital Sciences has not yet launched its Antares rocket or Cygnus spacecraft, but NASA hopes that service also will be available in the next year.   SpaceX has a head start on Orbital because Orbital replaced another company (Rocketplane Kistler) that failed early in the COTS program.

The first step for tomorrow's mission is getting the Dragon spacecraft into orbit.   Assuming the Falcon 9 rocket performs that task successfully, the next step is berthing Dragon with the International Space Station (ISS) on Day 4 of the mission.   If that is successful, Dragon will remain at the ISS for about two weeks and then reenter and land in the Pacific Ocean off the west coast of the United States.  A press kit with a detailed timeline is on the SpaceX website.

No living people are aboard, but ABC News reports that a canister with the ashes of 308 people, including James Doohan who played Scotty on the original Star Trek series, will rocket into space on the second stage of the Falcon 9.   A company named Celestis sells the opportunity to send people's ashes into space and reportedly has a performance guarantee that if a launch fails, they will relaunch ashes that have been held in reserve for just such an eventuality.   Of the 308 remains that will be aboard this flight, 208 are reflights from a failed SpaceX launch in 2008 (of its Falcon 1 rocket), including those of NASA astronaut Gordon Cooper.

As noted, the canister containing the ashes is on the second stage of the Falcon 9, not in the Dragon capsule.   Dragon is loaded with supplies for the ISS crew.   Three new crewmembers just arrived at the ISS on Wednesday, joining three others who have been aboard for several months.   Dragon will maneuver itself close to the ISS and the ISS crew will use Canada's robotic arm to grapple it and pull it into a docking port.

In the future, SpaceX hopes to use Dragon to launch people into space, but that step is several years away.  NASA is funding SpaceX and three other companies to develop "commercial crew" space transportation systems with the hope that at least two will be operating in the 2016-2017 time frame. 

Industry Praises House Passage of Defense Authorization Bill Easing Satellite Export Controls

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-May-2012 (Updated: 18-May-2012 03:46 PM)

The Satellite Industry Association (SIA), the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), and the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) lauded House passage today of the FY2013 National Defense Authorization Act, H.R. 4310.   As passed, the bill includes an amendment adopted yesterday that could ease export controls on commercial satellites, which the organizations support.  CSF has a caveat, however, saying it is unclear if the amendment also covers "the spaceflight participant experience." 

The amendment, sponsored by Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), and co-sponsored by HASC chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon and other influential members, restores to the President the authority to decide whether commercial satellites are governed by the U.S. Munitions List (USML) and its International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) or the dual-use Commerce Control List (CCL).  In a press release, SIA President Patricia Cooper called it a "vital step for the U.S. satellite industry."  AIA said it welcomed the action by the House and urged the Senate to follow suit. 

CSF also commended the easing of export controls on commercial satellites, but cautioned in a press statement that the language "is somewhat unclear on whether the commercial spaceflight participant experience and training are among the items the President has the authority to remove" from the USML.    "Spaceflight participant" is the formal name for what is more commonly called a space tourist.  CSF Executive Director Alex Saltman said CSF would work with the House and Senate to clarify that it should not be regulated under the USML.

Saltman went on to say that “We also support the removal of manned suborbital spacecraft from the U.S. Munitions List, as these vehicles now have countless civilian uses, and the eventual removal of all civilian spacecraft. The Commerce Control List is the appropriate place to regulate these vehicles, as it has successfully regulated many dual-use technologies with predominantly civilian uses in the past. We look forward to working with the Administration and Members of Congress to modernize the US Munitions List so that it effectively protects our national security without impeding the growth of American industries and jobs.”

The House action followed release of a congressionally-required report from the Departments of Defense and State on the national security implications of transferring commercial satellites from the USML to the CCL.   The "section 1248 report," referring to the section of the FY2010 DOD authorization act that required the report, strongly recommended that the authority to decide which export control regime governs commercial satellites be restored to the President.  Congress removed that authority in the FY1999 National Defense Authorization Act in the wake of congressional findings that U.S. satellite manufacturers advanced Chinese missile development by aiding in analysis of Chinese launch failures carrying U.S.-built satellites.  China is one of several countries to which satellite exports still are prohibited under the terms of the amendment.

House Appropriators Move FY2013 Defense Appropriations Bill, Do Not Restore ORS or STP

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-May-2012 (Updated: 17-May-2012 11:31 PM)

As the House of Representatives debated the FY2013 authorization bill for the Department of Defense (DOD) today, the House Appropriations Committee was marking up the companion appropriations measure.

Authorization bills set policy and recommend how much money should be spent on various programs, but only appropriations bills actually provide money.  The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) is the authorization committee for DOD in the House.  The House began debating HASC's FY2013 authorization bill, H.R. 4210, yesterday and continued today.

The House Appropriations Committee approved its version of the FY2013 funding bill for DOD today.   In its report to accompany the bill, the appropriators increased funding for the Space Based InfaRed Satellite (SBIRS) system by $68 million above the President's request of $517 million.  The committee also said it is supporting an incremental funding approach for SBIRS and the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) communications satellite program, but noted that the cost estimates for both appear to be "conservative" and asked for a report from DOD on the "should-cost" estimate for buying three instead of two satellites for each constellation.  "If the approved acquisition strategy does not support the most economical procurement of these vehicles," the committee said, then DOD must submit a report explaining why.

Regarding space launch services, the committee praised the record of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs, a reference to the Delta IV and Atlas V rockets), but said the "costs for this program have been difficult to justify and have been a source of concern."  The committee said that it was "eager" to see the results of a review of the EELV program as part of the Nunn-McCurdy recertification process.  The Nunn-McCurdy provision requires DOD to explain to Congress why programs cost more than expected if they exceed a certain cost escalation threshold and to certify that they are still important enough to warrant spending the additional funds.  The committee added that it supports DOD's New Entrant Certification initiative for launch service providers that would allow additional companies to compete to launch DOD satellites.

The following is not a definitive list, but shows key changes to the requested funding levels for military space programs in the committee's version of the  FY2013 appropriations bill:

  • $50 million additional for SBIRS for acceleration of its ground segment automated sensor tracking and another additional $50 million for ground enhancement to support the growth of command and control capability beyond the originally approved constellation. The committee cut about $32 million for other aspects of SBIRS yielding the net increase of $68 million.
  • $30 million less than the $229 million request for AEHF
  • $37 million less than the $267 million request for Space Situation Awareness -- "delay of award"
  • $25 million more than the $8 million request for EELV research and development
  • $38 million less than the $331.6 million request for GPS Operational Control Segment

Regarding acquisition of space systems overall, the committee warned against "silver-bullet acquisition concepts" and said that "[q]uick fix substitutes for years of hard-won experience are attractive but illusory." 

The appropriations committee did not recommend increases to the Space Test Program or Operationally Responsive Space as did the authorization committee in its markup of H.R. 4210.   Also, the appropriations committee recommended a cut of $55 million to the $297 million requested for the Precision Tracking Space System in the Missile Defense Agency's budget instead of the much deeper cut proposed by HASC that would leave only $50 million in that account.


House Passes Amendment Allowing President to Move Commercial Satellites to Commerce Control List

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-May-2012 (Updated: 17-May-2012 06:38 PM)

The House of Representatives today passed an amendment to the FY2013 National Defense Authorization Act, H.R. 4210,  that could relax export restrictions on commercial satellites.

The amendment, offered by Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee with the co-sponsorship of the chairman of the committee, Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon (R-CA), and other influential members of Congress, passed as part of a "manager's amendment" offered by McKeon that combined approximately 20 separate amendments.   It was adopted by voice vote.

House passage is only one step in the process of relaxing export controls on commercial satellites, but it is an important step that the aerospace industry has been working toward for more than a decade.



House to Debate Change to Export Rules for Commercial Satellites

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-May-2012 (Updated: 17-May-2012 09:37 AM)

The House will continue debate today on the FY2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), H.R. 4310, turning its attention from general debate to a long list of amendments.

One of those many amendments (click on "amendments" tab) could change the export control environment for commercial satellites.  Amendment 152, offered by Representatives Adam Smith (D-WA), Howard "Buck" McKeon (R-CA and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee), Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), and Kevin McCarthy (R-CA and House Majority Whip) would authorize the President to remove commercial satellites and related components from the U.S. Munitions List (USML).  The Administration would have to submit various determinations and reports, and exports to certain countries are prohibited, but in essence the amendment would restore to the President the authority to make the decision on whether commercial satellites are governed by the USML or the Commerce Department's Commerce Control List (CCL).   Congress took away that authority in the FY1999 National Defense Authorization Act in the wake of the "Loral-Hughes" controversy where Congress found that those companies had assisted China in developing missile capabilities by helping them determine why several Chinese launches of U.S.-built communications satellites failed.  

China is on the list of countries to which exports of commercial satellites still would be prohibited.  The others are Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Syria, and "any other country with respect to which the United States would deny the application for licenses and other approvals for exports and imports under section 126.1 of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations" or ITAR.

The amendment comes in the wake of a long-awaited report from the Departments of State and Defense -- the "section 1248 report" -- on the national security implications of moving commercial satellites and their components from the USML to the CCL.  The U.S. commercial communications satellite industry has been arguing stridently for more than a decade to ease export controls for their products arguing that European competitors are benefitting by making "ITAR-free" satellites that are not subject to U.S. export control regulations.

President Threatens to Veto House DOD Authorization Bill, Space Code of Conduct in Dispute

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-May-2012 (Updated: 16-May-2012 10:00 AM)

The White House said yesterday that it would veto the FY2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) if it passed Congress in its current form.  The House will begin debate on the bill, H.R. 4310, today.

The White House veto threat was just one shot fired in the escalating debate over the nation's economic future as the election season ramps up.  Though not an economic issue, one of the provisions to which the White House objects would prohibit the Administration from agreeing to an International Code of Conduct for space activities without the advice and consent of the Senate or unless it is authorized in law.

The NDAA authorizes funding and provides policy guidance for the Department of Defense (DOD) and related activities.   In last year's Budget Control Act (BCA), Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill and the White House agreed to drastic cuts in federal spending in return for congressional approval to raise the debt ceiling.   The House, however, has reneged on that deal.  It passed a bill last week exempting DOD from the spending cuts and imposing those cuts on other parts of the budget, particularly food stamps and other entitlement programs.

In its Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) on the bill, the White House says it will veto the final version of the bill "if the cumulative effects of the bill impede the ability of the Administration to execute the new defense strategy and to properly direct scarce resources" or if it contains language that would "impinge on the President's ability to implement the new START Treaty and to set U.S. nuclear weapons policy."

The SAP has a lengthy list of other provisions to which the White House objects.  One is opposition to Section 913, which would prohibit the President from agreeing to an International Code of Conduct for space activities without the advice and consent of the Senate or unless it is authorized by law.   Under the Constitution, treaties are subject to the advice and consent of the Senate, but the Administration argues that the space Code of Conduct would be a voluntary agreement with no enforcement provisions, not a treaty, and thus not subject to congressional action.   The extent to which the White House would consult with Congress before agreeing to a space Code of Conduct has been a sticking point since the concept emerged.

The European Union (EU) drafted a Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities in 2008 and released a revised draft in October 2010.   In January 2012, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the United States would work with the EU and other countries on finalizing a version of the agreement after bringing more countries into the discussion, a process expected to take several years.  A major theme of the agreement is space sustainability -- ensuring that the space environment remains usable in the future  -- by defining responsible behavior so those who behave irresponsibly can be singled out.    A Chinese antisatellite (ASAT) test in 2007 and the accidental collision of an American commercial Iridium communications satellite and a defunct Russian Kosmos satellite in 2009 created thousands of pieces of space debris in the most heavily used part of low Earth orbit.  Those events prompted calls for limiting the creation of space debris and enhancing space situational awareness so countries and companies operating in space know the current and projected locations of satellites and debris so collisions can be avoided.

Some members of Congress, however, are concerned that the Code of Conduct is a back-door approach to arms control in space that could limit U.S. options.  They do not want the Administration agreeing to anything without their approval.   In the SAP, however, the Obama Administration said that Sec. 913 of the NDAA "encroaches on the Executive's exclusive authority to conduct foreign relations and could severely hamper U.S. ability to conduct bilateral space cooperation actitivies with key allies."

While important enough to make the list of Administration objections to the House version of H.R. 4310, the Code of Conduct is likely to be a minor issue compared to the funding disputes.   The sharp differences between Republicans and Democrats over how to reduce the federal deficit were once again brought into sharp relief yesterday as House Speaker John Boehner vowed not to approve another increase in the debt limit without deep spending cuts that nonetheless protect the defense budget.  Republicans continue to insist on not increasing taxes and, in fact, say that they will extend the Bush-era tax cuts that will expire at the end of this year.  Democrats want to reduce the decifit by a combination of spending cuts and tax increases and the President insists that he will not approve an extension to the Bush-era tax cuts for wealthier individuals.

The expiration of those tax cuts, and harsh spending reductions to defense and non-defense discretionary spending under the sequestration provisions of the Budget Control Act that automatically take effect on January 1, 2013 unless Congress changes the law, are driving the political and fiscal debate in Washington.  Sequestration could have dramatic consequences for the aerospace industry according to the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA).  It is leading the drive to raise awareness of what could happen to the U.S. aerospace industry if Congress and the White House do not agree on a different course of action.

Soyuz TMA-04M Up and Away

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-May-2012 (Updated: 14-May-2012 11:12 PM)

Soyuz TMA-04M successfully lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 11:01 pm Eastern Daylight Time (9:01 am May 15 local time at the launch site).

NASA astronaut Joe Acaba and Russian cosmonauts Gennady Padalka and Sergei Revin are on their way to the International Space Station.


LightSquared Files for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-May-2012 (Updated: 14-May-2012 10:03 PM)

LightSquared, the company trying to build a hybrid satellite-terrestrial mobile broadband wireless system despite concerns that it might interfere with reception of GPS signals, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection today.

In a statement, the company made clear that it is not giving up, but buying time.  "The voluntary Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing is intended to give LightSquared sufficient breathing room to continue working through the regulatory process that will allow us to build" the mobile broadband system, said Marc Montagner, interim co-chief operating officer and chief financial officer.

The company's chief executive officer (CEO), Sanjiv Ahuja, resigned earlier this year after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) revoked its provisional approval for the company to proceed with its system because of concern that its terrestrial transmissions would interfere with reception of GPS signals.   LightSquared has a satellite in orbit already, SkyTerra, and its signals are not the problem.   Instead, it is LightSquared's proposal to build 40,000 terrestrial cell towers to work in conjunction with the satellite to provide nationwide mobile 4G broadband services that has created considerable consternation.  A series of congressional hearings by a variety of committees showcased witness after witness from the government, industry and trade groups raising alarms against allowing LightSquared to proceed.

LightSquared insists that it followed all the FCC regulations and any interference is because GPS receiver manufacturers did not properly design their equipment.  The company claims that tests conducted by the government's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) were flawed.   NTIA oversees the use of the radio frequency spectrum by government users, while the FCC regulates private sector use of spectrum.

The company's statement today said that its current management team would remain in place.  Although Ahuja resigned as CEO, he is still chairman of the board.   Hedge fund manager Philip Falcone of Harbinger Capital Partners is the biggest investor in the company and a member of the board.

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